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Morning Sun
  • TRUE STORIES: The grande dame lives on

  • Memorial Day being an occasion for general expressions of memory and visiting the graves of those who’ve passed on, I found myself this week missing buildings that are no longer with us.



    Just this past year we lost the 1106 Drive-In, Beitzinger’s, and the original Benelli’s building. My chest contracts involuntarily every time I pass the empty lots where they once thrived.

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  • Memorial Day being an occasion for general expressions of memory and visiting the graves of those who’ve passed on, I found myself this week missing buildings that are no longer with us.
    Just this past year we lost the 1106 Drive-In, Beitzinger’s, and the original Benelli’s building. My chest contracts involuntarily every time I pass the empty lots where they once thrived.
    The spots where PICCO’s and the Tower Ballroom once stood also bring an exquisite kind of heartache.
    On Thursday I had a lively visit in the Overman Student Center with three men of a certain age (mine), Pittsburg State alumni from Wichita. In talking about changes around campus, one lamented the loss of Carney Hall. “I saw Roy Clark and Glen Campbell there!” “Yeah,” I smiled, “I saw Peter and Gordon — with the girl who is now my wife.”
    Built in 1919, Carney Hall was for decades the cultural and social hub of the university. It was razed in 1980 because of “deterioration and severe settling.”
    Many, myself included, believe that the historic building, with its 3,000 seat auditorium and soulful memories, could, and should, have been saved.
    I offer as evidence that there once were plans to raze both Memorial Auditorium and the Hotel Stilwell. Both of which are still around — thanks to some passionate and enterprising local preservationists.
    Not only are they still around, they’re thriving. The Stilwell, a.k.a. “The Old Girl,” was once pronounced “dangerous and unsafe” and scheduled for demolition. It now houses the beautiful Timmons Ballroom and 44 apartments.
    It was quite an effort — with plenty of naysayers along the sidelines offering their two cents of criticism — to save the Stilwell. Correction, the cents actually came from supporters in the form of quart jars full of pennies as part of a campaign to “Save the Old Girl.” (Bob Blunk coined the “Put a penny in the cup. Help to fix the Stilwell Up” slogan with the goal of collecting a million pennies to total $10,000. The goal was reached April 13, 1997.)
    It wasn’t only pennies that got the job done. In addition to grant monies, an endowment fund, and a capital campaign, contributions ran as high as $100,000 per donor.  
    Not to mention the human effort — Stilwell Foundation board members and hundreds of people who contributed vigor and good faith to the effort. The whole story, complete with impressive photographs of the process and notable players, has been captured in “The Hotel Stilwell: A Tale of Mortar, Money and Memories” by Kathleen De Grave. Copies can be ordered at the hotel.
    The Grand Reopening was May 12, 1997. Two thousand people showed up in addition to bigwigs like the Lt. Governor, Executive Director of the Kansas Historical Society, and the mayor.
    Page 2 of 2 - Sadly, Gene DeGuson, who got the hotel on the Register of State and National Historic Places, and whose personal commitment to preserving the heritage of Southeast Kansas was second to none, died unexpectedly of a stroke a month after the opening.
    In October of 1997, the first annual Gene DeGruson Memorial Birthday Party was held in the hotel. The Little Balkans Players, a group originated by Gene, performed a script written by Gene’s close friend, Charles Cagle, that brought to life historical figures who’d stayed at the Stilwell.
    Cagle also wrote “A Smile and a Shoeshine,” the story of Arthur Stilwell and how the hotel came into being in 1889. (It’s included as an appendix in the De Grave book.) The story contains another important facet of local history — the builders and craftsmen who worked on the combination of Italian Renaissance and Romanesque red brick and Carthage marble design by St. Louis Architect W.C. Lindsey. Lee Van Winkle’s lumberyard provided wood and carpenters; John Lance did the plastering; W.W. Bell and Brothers did the painting; and the Pittsburg Foundry provided iron columns and reinforcing rods.
    On June 1, the Stilwell Foundation will take over as the sole owners of the building. A ribbon cutting will be held at the hotel at 9:00 a.m. on June 5th. “We don’t have deep pockets, but we will break even,” said Sara Henry, incoming executive director of the Stilwell Foundation.
    Henry is taking the reins from the single-minded Laura Carlson, who has been a driving force in the project from the beginning. In the foreword to the De Grave book she writes, “Being an Anglophile and daughter of an Englishman, I was enchanted by the reverence the English have for old buildings, so when I saw the Hotel Stilwell might be torn down, I knew what I had to do.”
    Very nicely put, but anyone who knows Laura knows she’s not only a reverent English lady, she’s displayed equal part English bulldog when it comes to putting forth the tenacity of mind and spirit needed to take on the physical obstacles and political battles, not to mention the financial risks, required over the past 20 years. A quote by another English dame comes to mind: “If you want anything said, ask a man,” Margaret Thatcher once observed. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
    Carlson said in her foreword that “the old girl” is always in her heart and in her mind. Truly, it is in no small part because of that sentiment, along with her “dawn to dusk” efforts, that the grande dame is still here.
     
    J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Counseling Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net.
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